best books 2019, bone china, book review, favourite books, girl woman other, once upon a river, queenie, the familiars, the golem and the djinni, the testaments, the wych elm, to be taught if fortunate, wakenhyrst
The temptation is to make this list longer and longer each year, but to avoid this I have excluded all of the books previously mentioned in my Summer Reading Recommendations and I will do a separate list for fantasy books and children’s books. Without further ado…
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
This is my favourite book of the year. One dark night on the Thames, a group of pub regulars are exchanging stories when the door bursts open to reveal an injured stranger carrying the body of a drowned girl. An hour later the girl takes a breath and comes back to life. How did she survive? Who is she? And what are the circumstances that led up to this night?
Once upon a River is an absolutely enchanting and lyrical novel full of folklore, mystery, love and science, set on the Thames in Victorian England. I loved every minute of this book!
Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver
Maud lives with her horrible, repressive misogynistic father on the edge of the fens. When he accidentally discovers a medieval panel portraying the devil it triggers the memory of a guilty secret he’s kept buried since childhood and it slowly starts to eat away at him. Maud reads his diary and tries to protect the fen and the people she loves from her father’s increasing suspicion and hostility.
This book was everything I hoped it would be, a sinister and atmospheric gothic tale of murder and superstition. Brilliantly done. (Plus – what a beautiful cover design!)
To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
Could Becky Chambers write anything I wouldn’t love? Not likely. I was excited to hear she had a new book coming out, less so to hear it was just a novella, but To Be Taught, If Fortunate is such a perfectly polished gem of a book that I can’t criticise it for its length. It it encapsulates the spirit of space exploration but also muses on the ethics of space exploration – a fascinating thought in light of the damage that colonialism has done to earth. And that is what I love most about Becky Chamber’s fiction – in her universe the future is a hopeful place where, though we have suffered the consequences of our own self-destructive tendencies, we have also actually learned something from our mistakes. Imagine that?
The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker
New York, 1899. Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master dies she must find her own way to live. Ahmad the djinni has been trapped in an old copper flask for centuries but when he is accidentally released he must find a way to free himself once and for all. The golem and djinni become unlikely friends, until their pasts catch up with them and they face a threat that could destroy them both.
I loved this book, an inventive, atmospheric story about two fascinating characters. Brilliantly done.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Queenie is a 25-year-old journalist, ‘on a break’ from her longterm boyfriend, Tom, and struggling to adjust to life without him. She’s not performing at work, she has a series of terrible dates with men who see her as an object not a person, her Jamaican grandparents don’t understand her, and she starts to feel like everything is falling apart.
Reading Queenie felt a lot like watching the first season of Fleabag: at first Queenie’s self-destructive behaviour is difficult to read and hard to comprehend, but the story is darker and more complex than it first appears. Queenie is definitely not Bridget Jones. A wonderfully fresh, honest story about family, friendship and mental health.
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
The Testaments is everything I hoped it would be. It answers the questions left hanging at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale but is another thrilling, brilliantly-plotted, and thought-provoking narrative in its own right. It’s one of those books that it is better to read without knowing too much about it in advance, but needless to say – highly recommended. I couldn’t put it down.
Having said that, this is a book for the fans – and in particular it is an alternative sequel for those who didn’t have a strong enough stomach for The Handmaid’s Tale TV series. (I couldn’t watch much beyond series 1.) Should it have won the Booker? Personally, I think Margaret Atwood deserves a prize for everything she writes, but in this case perhaps I would’ve given it Bernadine Evaristo alone…
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
And speaking of…
Bookended by the launch of a play at the National Theatre, Girl, Woman, Other tells the lives of twelve characters (primarily black British women), in twelve interconnected stories.
I loved this book. Each character is so vividly captured, in their own story and in the glimpses we catch of them though the other characters’ eyes – a thoroughly impressive feat of voice and characterisation. Girl, Woman, Other is technically brilliant, but is also an incredibly captivating and moving book.
The Familiars by Stacey Halls
Set in 1612 and based on real historical characters, The Familiars deals with the Pendle Hill Witch Trials. Fleetwood Shuttleworth has had several miscarriages and fears that her latest pregnancy may end in her own death as well as her child, until she meets a midwife who promises to save her life and that of her unborn child. A power-hungry local magistrate, however, is on the hunt for witches, and in 1612 it only takes being a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time to be accused of witchcraft. Fleetwood must find a way to save her midwife Alice from being hanged without being accused herself.
I thoroughly enjoyed this gripping, evocative tale.
The Wych Elm by Tana French
Toby has always felt lucky, until the day he is robbed and suffers a traumatic head injury that leaves him a broken shadow of the person he once was. Then his uncle gets cancer and the discovery of the body in the wych elm at the bottom of the garden makes him question everything he ever thought about his family and himself.
This wasn’t quite the page-turning thriller I was expecting, so it took a little while to get into it but definitely worth reading – a slow-burn literary mystery with lots of introspection and complicated family dynamics. It is not a cheerful or a comfortable read but it is beautifully written, complex and thought-provoking.
Bone China by Laura Purcell
Hester Why hopes a new name and new job will be a fresh start and an end to her bad luck, but her new situation brings superstition, fear and lots of sinister bone china.
Another deliciously creepy, gothic page turner from Laura Purcell. I think The Corset is still my favourite of her books so far, but Bone China is a close second. (Side note: I’d never thought about why it’s called bone china. Eeeeuw!)